Let the heavens be glad and earth rejoice; let the sea roar and all that fills it; let the field exult and everything in it. Then shall the trees of the forest sing for joy before the Lord; for he is coming, he is coming to judge the earth" (Psalm 96.11-13).
What in the world is all that supposed to mean? The earth rejoicing? The fields exulting? Trees singing?
The craziest thing is that this is not presented as a metaphor. It is given to us as a picture of what actually happens when God's reign is established and evil is obliterated.
Start looking around the Old Testament for similar passages and they begin popping out of the pages. There is the lengthy canticle sung by Shadrach, Meshach and Abednego when King Nebuchadnezar tries to kill them in the fiery furnace (Daniel 3.52-90): "Bless the Lord, seas and rivers; sing praise to him and highly exalt him forever."
Will the rivers actually praise the Lord? How can non-intelligent, non-sentient things actually give meaningful praise?
Then there is the prophet Isaiah who prophesies that the palace will be forsaken and the city deserted "until a spirit from on high is poured out on us, and the wilderness becomes a fruitful field and the fruitful field is deemed a forest" (32.15).
In these prayers and prophesies (and several others), the redemption of humanity is linked with the liberation of nature. The sin of Adam not only meant sin and death for all men and women, it oppressed nature as well.
This understanding is the polar opposite of paganism, which worshipped gods in nature, and pantheism, which maintains that everything is God. In Psalm 96, the earth, the field and the trees are quite different from God; that is why they are able to praise him.
But if sin and evil violate the harmony and goodness of nature as well as of humanity, so much more will the full outpouring of the Spirit enable nature to realize the fullness of its being.
The main New Testament passage that supports this understanding comes right in the middle of St. Paul's main reflection on the Holy Spirit: "Creation waits with eager longing for the revealing of the children of God; for the creation was subjected to futility, not of its own will but by the will of the one who subjected it, in hope that the creation itself will be set free from its bondage to decay and will obtain the freedom of the glory of the children of God.
"We know that the whole creation has been groaning in labour pains until now; and not only the creation, but we ourselves, who have the first fruits of the Spirit, groan inwardly while we wait for adoption, the redemption of our bodies" (Romans 8.19-23).
We have the audacity to think that technological progress can overcome nature's "bondage to decay." Technological development can be a good thing. But decay will end only when humanity and nature are completely filled by the outpouring of the Spirit. Right now, we have only "the first fruits"; in God's good time, there will be the full outpouring.
At times, our Christian tradition has been tempted to see the Spirit as an ethereal ghost. But as Jesuit theologian Roger Haight argues, the Spirit seeks out bodies, most evidently in the Spirit's "overshadowing" of Mary's virginal womb.
In the early Church, a primary sign of the presence of the Spirit was the gift of physical healing.
After Jesus' baptism in the Jordan, he was filled with the Spirit and went about "proclaiming the good news of the kingdom and curing every disease and every sickness among the people" (Matthew 4.23). After Pentecost, one of Peter's first acts was to heal a man lame from birth (Acts 3.1-10).
Such healings are a clear sign that God's kingdom means the restoration of our physical nature to its fullest glory. Communion with God through the Holy Spirit means not only a union of hearts, but also oneness among God, humanity and nature on every level.
Is it any wonder then that the earth is waiting to rejoice, the trees to sing for joy and the rivers to praise the Lord?